Steelers' rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders catches his calling
He's navigated first-year ups and downs to become an important part of team's attack
January 21, 2011 5:00 AM
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Emmanuel Sanders stretches out for a pass against Oakland. Including playoffs, Sanders has 32 catches this season -- 16 of them in the past four games.
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the NFL Bible, dropped passes violate the league's Ten Commandments, so when Emmanuel Sanders had two of them in one practice during Week 15 he knew he had to adjust his approach. He went home, sat down and asked himself: What do I want? What do I want to be in this league?
Then, Sanders said, he had his revelation.
"That kind of woke me up," he said. "The next day I knew I had to come back and go to work. I caught my second wind and now I'm ready to go to the Super Bowl."
First the Steelers have to beat the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC championship game at Heinz Field, and they'll likely need Sanders' help to do so.
In biblical terms, the name Emmanuel is a combination of two Hebrew words meaning roughly "God is with us." Appropriate, because Sanders refers often to blessings, and understands his good fortune to be in his current situation.
"It's definitely a blessing in my first year to have the opportunity to go out and, if we win this game this Sunday, to go the Super Bowl in my first year," said Sanders, a rookie from Southern Methodist. "A lot of people say me and Antonio [Brown, another rookie receiver] are spoiled and whatnot, but we're definitely not taking advantage of it. We understand what's at stake."
The goal of reaching the Super Bowl, to be played at Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, Sanders' college town, has driven him since before the season when director of player development Ray Jackson talked to the rookies.
"He always preached to us that this team could be the team to go all the way and win it all," Sanders said. "He said that he just got a feeling. I sat back and looked at the guys on the team and the veteran leadership and that's what I really knew."
He came to Pittsburgh before training camp to learn from veteran Hines Ward after the Steelers had selected Sanders in the third round of the NFL Draft. The Bellville, Texas, native was drafted after he set SMU records for career catches, yards and touchdown receptions.
"Practice hard, study hard. Believe in your talents," Ward said he told Sanders. "You're here for a reason. It's not luck that you're in the NFL, it's not luck that you're out dressing every Sunday."
Sanders' success didn't arrive right away. He played in the first game and returned kicks, but did not dress for the next three games. During that span, Brown returned the first live NFL ball he touched for a touchdown, and the competition to dress began between the two.
"Two dogs, one bone," Sanders said. "I'll never forget that."
He returned for the fifth game, against Cleveland, and has played in every game since, getting 28 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He has filled the role Mike Wallace had last year, when Wallace learned from Ward and Santonio Holmes as a rookie. Wallace said Sanders filled it well.
"In certain situations he's asking for the ball," Wallace said. "Any time you got a guy who wants the ball on third down and is not afraid to drop that thing, man, that's saying a lot."
Then Week 15 came, and Sanders ran head-first into what he called the "rookie wall." Coaches told him to get an extra hour of sleep, and he heeded Ward's suggestions to take care of his body with massages and ice baths.
"It's definitely a blessing to have a vet like that teach you steps of the NFL," Sanders said of Ward.
The Steelers' Week 15 opponents happened to be the Jets. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw to Sanders 13 times and Sanders caught seven for 78 yards that day, his best performance of the season.
Sunday, the Jets' top corners, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, will probably cover Ward and Wallace most of the time, leaving Sanders and Brown against New York's third corner or a safety. That suits the offense well.
"We're not calling on Emmanuel every single play," Roethlisberger said. "We're not calling on Antonio every play. It's when we call on them they answer the bell."